In response to last night’s State of the Union address, Aspen Institute program directors are reacting to President Barack Obama’s promises to tackle some of the biggest issues facing the nation today. Below, Erin Bailey, director of the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute, explains how the president’s policy announcements will affect Indian Country — and what more can be done.
President Obama’s State of the Union discussed many important success stories and challenges facing our nation and its future generations. In many cases, the issues he discussed are experienced even more harshly for our country’s First Americans — those living on Indian reservations and urban Indian communities across the country. This is especially true for Native American children.
President Obama said last night that “no one who works full-time should ever have to raise a family in poverty.” The rate of poverty for Native American children in 2010 was 28 percent. It is estimated that 12 percent of Native Americans are homeless, even though they only make up 1 percent of the population. Recent reports show that 13 percent of homes in Indian Country lack safe drinking water and proper waste removal systems. Thus, in addition to President Obama’s goals to combat poverty, prioritization of basic needs, including safe and adequate housing and communities, is most certainly a priority for Indian Country.
Last night we heard a strong emphasis on education and health care, and improving those systems for our country’s children. These priorities are critical and central to the challenges the Center for Native American Youth hears from Native American children through our outreach to Indian Country.
President Obama emphasized health care and how important it is to pass health care reform. The positive effects of health care reform are felt in Indian Country. In addition to the extensions of health care coverage for Native American youth until 26 years of age and the end of lifetime caps, the Affordable Care Act permanently reauthorized the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which authorizes the services for which our federal government has a trust responsibility to provide to Native Americans. This legislation had languished for 19 years, but under President Obama’s leadership, critical updates were finally made to the Indian health system. The importance of this cannot be overstated, as Native American youth are at a higher risk for many diseases and health care challenges. Perhaps the most tragic example is the fact that suicide for Native American children is two-and-a-half times the national rate, with far too many tribal communities experiencing rates at 10 times the national average.
Despite gains, important needs in other areas still remain. Over the last decade, high school graduation rates increased for every racial and ethnic group except Native American children, where graduation rates are only 51 percent, and more than 10 percent fewer Native American students graduate with an undergraduate degree, compared with the general population.
The president told several inspiring stories last night; stories of young leaders overcoming challenges in health care access, employment, and economic development, and many more critical areas. These inspirational stories extend into Indian Country, as well. While Native American youth face many challenges, it is also true that there are thousands of young people who overcome obstacles and serve as sources of hope for their tribal nations and the United States as a whole. The CNAY’s Champions for Change program is a youth leadership initiative designed to highlight the positive stories and promote hope in Indian Country. Much like President Obama did for many Americans last night — as one Native American youth put it — CNAY and Champions for Change gives youth “more motivation to do more for my community and… gain a voice.”